Skip to content


Improving your academic writing: My top 10 tips

The topic of academic writing has been popular in the blogosphere and Twittersphere in the past couple of weeks. I think it all came from Stephen Walt’s Foreign Policy piece “On Writing Well“. Several fellow academics responded to Walt’s scathing critique of our scholarly writing (read Stephen Saideman, Jay Ulfelder, Dan Drezner, Marc Bellemare, Thomas Pepinsky, Greg Weeks, and I’m sure a few more that I missed. Yes, I also know that I linked to political science and public policy professors. There are two reasons for this. First, because they were the ones who responded to Walt’s critique and commented on it. Second, because I am largely trained as a public policy/political science scholar. I taught at a department of political science for 6 years and now I teach at one of public administration. My training comes largely from that academic field.

The above said, I have also written on this blog why I read widely, and across disciplines (I do the same on Twitter – I follow folks who are political scientists, educators, anthropologists, geographers, sociologists, computer scientists and mathematicians): because it broadens my learning spectrum, improves my writing skills, and enables me to write for very different audiences.

My research output in the past couple of months

You’ll see: I write differently if I am submitting a paper to Policy Sciences (a public policy journal) than if I am sending it to Water International (an area journal focusing on water). I write differently for a human geography audience than I do for a political science one. That was the very first piece of advice my PhD advisor gave me on writing: write for your audience. And that is, I think, an element that was missing in Walt’s piece: we write for specific audiences. I write differently a policy advice report than I do a public policy scholarly paper. The audiences are different, as are the goals of each piece of writing.

I can’t claim to say that everything I have learned from academic writing came from my own experiences. I have been mentored and have learned from my former PhD advisor, from my former doctoral committee, other faculty members, and from other folks I read. So while not attributing them to each person who taught me each, here are my top tips on academic writing. This is what I do to improve my own writing and may be of value for those of you seeking to improve yours.

1. Be disciplined and write every day.
Every morning, I wake up anywhere between 4:45am and 5:30am, I start a pot of coffee, make my bed, turn on my laptop and start writing. I have been writing for 2 hours every single day of the week (Saturdays and Sundays included) for the past little while and it has done wonders for my writing. I added 85 single spaced pages to my book, and produced 120 single-spaced pages in the past couple of months or so. I’d say that’s good productivity.

I had my carpenter build a paper holder for my office :)

2. Give yourself the best tools to write.
I grew up in an academic household, and thus my childhood bedroom also has a full-blown home office (complete with desktop computer and printer, and wireless internet). Because I travel to my parents’ city every single weekend to visit them, I know that I have the right setup to write. I also need to make sure that I have the tools to write anywhere I go, so I try to pack with me everything I need, including a paper holder. Recently, I bought a new computer chair for my home office at my parents’ place. I need to make sure that every piece of furniture I have enables my writing. Same goes for hardware and software. It was incredibly frustrating to have to switch computers because I only had EndNote in one of them (I now use Mendeley as a reference manager).

Home office at my Mom's

3. Write as you would speak (aka read aloud what you just wrote).
I remember that the first time one of my professors told me this I felt offended. I thought I wrote well! But as I have learned through time, if I write as I speak, my writing becomes clearer.

4. Have other people read your pieces to provide you with feedback.
This is a hard piece of advice to follow, as my writing often gets torn to pieces. It always comes out stronger, though. I learned (in this case, from my former PhD advisor) to take the feedback that people gave me to improve my writing. If I am not writing clearly, I need to work on how to write crisp, short, punchy, effective sentences.

5. Read a lot, and read across different disciplines.
My PhD itself is interdisciplinary, and the theoretical and analytical frameworks that I built for my doctoral dissertation borrowed from literature in anthropology, sociology, planning, human geography, chemical engineering. I’m a multi-methods guy, and I have done everything from institutional ethnography to GIS to social network analysis to structural equation modeling. I’m always on the lookout for innovative research methods. To this end, I read a lot (which of course takes a lot of time, I recognize) and I read across a variety of disciplines. Reading does improve your writing, as it enables you to see how other folks frame their thoughts and communicate them.

Recent book acquisitions April & May 2013 CIDE Region Centro library

6. Write for your audience.
Your writing style will vary if you write on a blog (like this one) to communicate to a broader audience than if your audience is policy-makers who need brief, concise analytical summaries of the literature and calls-to-action. You will be writing differently for your doctoral committee or for a political science journal than for an anthropology one. But always try to write clearly.

7. Write without interruptions
This is hard in today’s academic lifestyle: we are required to do more (because many administrative tasks like grant management, budget creation and day-to-day expense-tracking are being offloaded on to us). We also need to prepare lectures, write slides, design curricula, participate in committees, advise students, provide them with feedback on their writing. To counter this, I write in the morning (very early), and later in the afternoon/evening or late at night. I always make sure that nobody interrupts me (although when I’m visiting my parents doing this is sometimes hard as this is the only time we get to chat. When this is the case, I make sure to write late at night or very early in the morning so that I can hang out with them the rest of the day.

How I write an academic paper

8. Take care of yourself.
This is a very obvious one, but one that many academics fail to take into account. How does taking a break from writing (and from academic life) every so often help you write better? You can refresh your mind by exercising and taking care of your health and body. Your writing will improve if your health improves as well (and of course, if you devote time to it!)

9. Practice your writing. Write a lot.
And by write a lot, I don’t mean answer dozens of emails. Write lots of generative text, so that you can in turn shift around, rewrite, re-order and re-read your sentences and find ways to make them stronger. Recently, as the text of a book chapter that included lots of theory and lots of empirical research started growing longer than the length I had allowed, I realized that I could split it into one theoretical book chapter, and 2 empirical journal articles. I started with just one document, and I split enough text into three drafts that I now have the foundations of 3 pieces instead of just one. I do not feel that any of the writing I did was wasted at all.

Handwriting

10. When stuck, write by hand.
This piece of advice comes from someone who is a fan of online collaborative tools. I clip documents on Evernote all the time, upload PDFs to Mendeley for later reading and inserting citations into my writing and use Dropbox to share research with my collaborators, students and research assistants. So you may be surprised when you read that when I am stuck (and sometimes, even not when I am stuck but when I am writing a paper or an article) I write by hand. I particularly write by hand when I am creating new ideas or line-editing or when I need to fill gaps in my arguments.

Posted in academia.

Tagged with , .


19 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Tim Riecker says

    Dr. Pacheco-Vega,
    An excellent post filled with practical but relevant guidance! I referenced your post on my blog at http://www.triecker.wordpress.com.

    A couple of comments… item #3: Write as you would speak. While I see the common sense in this, there are many who seem to take this to an extreme and write too casually or conversationally. While that might be acceptable in blogging, it certainly won’t fly in academic or technical writing. So I would express caution to folks who might be inclined to do that.

    Item #6: Write for your audience. Nothing could be more true! I blog often espousing the importance of needs assessments in plan writing, instructional design, and practically everything else. We always need to focus on our audiences!

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Erika says

    Great ideas I especially like the idea of taking care of ourselves. It is so essential. We can easitly loose perspective.

    Thanks
    Erika Torres, PhD

  3. Janvi says

    Great post! I am going to print this out and stick it on my board. I’m a PhD student and struggling with clarity in my writing.

  4. Allan says

    Very useful! I was looking for some information about academic writing when I stumbled upon this blog. Thanks for sharing these tips. English is not my first language I have started my PhD but first proposal that I wrote I got a bad review. Then reading the tip: write how you would speak, I feel that I should have done that, because I tried to write in a “academic sophisticated way” and I ended up creating convoluted sentences among other things. When you put “how to speak” for me it is not meaning that you have to write in a totally informal way but rather than to be short and concise about what you want to say.

  5. Sheri Oberman says

    Scrivener helps.. It’s a publishing software which can organize chapters in the same document more effortlessly.

  6. Cate says

    Could you share your teaching load (# of classes/# of preps/# of office hours/# of committees per week/# of advisees/amount of grading per week) as part of helping us to understand your schedule?

    I feel that is necessary info to understand the “write daily” advice. I teach 300-400 students; they write for me every day (exit tickets) and I reply to each one; I have 60 advisees that I must see in the next 2-3 weeks or else they cannot register; I edit a major professional journal and write about 12 decision letters a week; I have on average 10 meetings a week, most lasting 2 hours; etc. I am at school or grading from 6:30 until about 9:30 at night most nights.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have published over 40 articles and 2 books. But I am a ’spree’ writer and really resent the ‘must write every day’ advice, especially if it comes from someone with a 2-2 load where classes are capped at about 25 students, have professional advisors to do all that, and so on. So could you share with us?

  7. Russell Bither-Terry says

    Cate: The best stuff I’ve seen about writing daily in shorter bits of time (30 minutes, or even less) is by Robert Boice who calls them brief daily sessions BDS. Two books that look at this are “Professors as Writers” and “Advice for New Faculty.” He finds the faculty he works with who wrote in BDSs and avoided binging wrote more and were happier.

    In your shoes I’m not sure I’d be able to find even 10 minutes for daily writing, and you’ve obviously been quite productive with the ’spree’ approach. I just wanted to let you know that not everyone who advocates daily writing assumes multiple hours (or even one hour) available for doing so.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Writing Tips linked to this post on February 25, 2013

    [...] we spend our funds Writing TipsFeb 25, 2013 @ 13:10 By scotmcknight Leave a CommentThis piece by Paul Pacheco-Vega hits some very important points.1. Write every day. 2. Give yourself the best tools to write. 3. [...]

  2. Writerly Roundup 2/25/13 | Call Me A Writer linked to this post on February 25, 2013

    [...] Improving Your Academic Writing: My Top 10 Tips, by Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega You’ll see: I write differently if I am submitting a paper to Policy Sciences (a public policy journal) than if I am sending it to Water International (an area journal focusing on water). I write differently for a human geography audience than I do for a political science one. That was the very first piece of advice my PhD advisor gave me on writing: write for your audience. And that is, I think, an element that was missing in Walt’s piece: we write for specific audiences. I write differently a policy advice report than I do a public policy scholarly paper. The audiences are different, as are the goals of each piece of writing. [...]

  3. Improving your writing | Tim Riecker linked to this post on February 26, 2013

    [...] is one of my favorite ways to get topical articles.  One of the posts that was selected for me was Improving Your Academic Writing: My top 10 tips, a blog post by Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD.  Dr. Pacheco-Vega’s post is filled with common sense [...]

  4. Making time to read and reflect: Writing a literature review – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on April 7, 2013

    [...] every single morning and the first two hours of the day I do nothing but research. Specifically, I write (and I write EVERY SINGLE DAY OF THE WEEK, 7 DAYS A WEEK). To aid me in my relentless pursuit of “a time to read”, I have implemented 2 [...]

  5. My Top 10 academic productivity tips, or how I submitted 5 pieces in 3 weeks – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on April 13, 2013

    [...] I wake up is make a pot of coffee, make my bed, start my computer and begin writing (you can read my Top 10 Tips for Academic Writing here). But being productive and having done the research and only writing it up is not enough. I needed [...]

  6. Friday Free Writing #8: Blogging Is/And Writing | Words Are My GameWords Are My Game linked to this post on September 6, 2013

    [...] journal, that doesn’t mean it’s less respectable. I like Raul Pacheco-Vega’s suggestion here to write like you would speak. Do you sound like an academic 24 hours a day? I hope not. Lawyers [...]

  7. More reading about writing | Research Journal linked to this post on October 8, 2013

    [...] Improving your academic writing: My top 10 tips [...]

  8. Balancing focus and diversification: Having multiple projects on the go – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on December 20, 2013

    [...] a higher per-year productivity. Since different journals will have varying publishing schedules, I can work on, write and submit several pieces and wait until I get a rejection or revise-and-resubmit (or, hopefully, until they get accepted!). [...]

  9. Why didn’t I do #AcWriMo this year: On binge-writing and daily discipline – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on December 22, 2013

    [...] pressure to my already super busy schedule. I built into my calendar a daily writing routine. I write for 2 hours every day, normally, and when I can’t, I at least schedule 30 minutes per … Given how much I have travelled recently, I have had long spurts where I have had a chance to write [...]

  10. My 2014 manifesto: Peace and balance – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on January 13, 2014

    [...] Friday and not work on weekends or holidays, as it is often the norm in academia. I still plan to write on a daily basis, and from January through August, I will be focusing on spending the vast majority of my time on [...]

  11. Cómo escribir (y terminar) una tesis | Historia Global Online linked to this post on March 9, 2014

    [...] post de Raúl Pacheco Vega, Improving your Academic Writing, es excelente y muy útil para quien esté comenzando a escribir, ya sea un paper o una tesis. El [...]

  12. Five strategies to get your academic writing “unstuck” – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on May 5, 2014

    [...] I blog about academic writing, I do so from the vantage point of someone who does it on a daily basis. Someone who recognizes his [...]



Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.